‘It must be about time/ for a change’

In our notes to the publication The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure, Richie McCaffery and I allude to the circumstances that led to our joining forces on the project. That a writer and critic then living in Ghent, and a small publishing house based in Orkney should come together for the purposes of publishing the first selection of poetry by an author so strongly associated with her home city of Glasgow, and so long forgotten, might indeed seem curious. It’s not as though Brae Editions was even, on the face of it, still a going concern, but several years into what might have passed for dormancy.

We both had some previous association with Glasgow, of course, my own being rather more intermittent in recent years, and tending to concentrate on my PhD research (hence the inactivity, publishing-wise) at Northumbria University. This concerned the early career of the poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay. As noted elsewhere, I am now researching his life and work in order to write his biography. I was initially interested in Ure because she and Finlay had known one another from at least the mid-1950s, and I wanted, partly through her, to find out as much as I could about his rather obscure career over that period, up to the early 1960s, and its context. Among other things, like Ure, he was active then as a playwright. But I had grown to like what I was able to learn about her. I admired her work, when I happened to come across it, and I enjoyed her vigour and spirit personally and as an artist. There wasn’t much in print, but there was that photograph on the moped. She intrigued me.

Richie’s connections with Glasgow are more substantial, in that although he comes originally from Northumberland, he lived and studied there for a decade. A Carnegie Trust Caledonian scholar at the University of Glasgow, he earned his PhD in 2016, his thesis being concerned with Scottish poets of World War Two. That focus implies only a small part of the very extensive range of interest he takes in the field. As his entry states on the Scottish Poetry Library website, ‘his essays, largely on Scottish poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, have appeared in The Scottish Literary Review, The Dark Horse, Northwords Now, Fras and Etudes ecossaises.’  His own website can be found hereRichie is currently in the final stages of editing a volume of essays on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, for publication by Brill, date to be confirmed.

Not surprisingly, we had never previously encountered one another. But at the start of November 2017, we both happened to be working at the National Library of Scotland, and we met under circumstances that, as noted in that editorial, ‘might seem improbable’. It was I who made the connection, but given how the project has unfolded since then, it rather seems as though circumstances themselves were behind the thing.

At the end of October 2017 I’d attended part of a weekend literary event being held in Glasgow (the Peter Manson Symposium, the first such). During a break I asked one of the speakers, who I’d heard being introduced as also recently having completed a PhD in the field, whether he knew anything about one or two now quite obscure Scottish poets of the post-War period. Well, he said, probably not as much as Richie McCaffery, but he lives in Belgium. Ah, I thought. Next time I’m heading over there… But perhaps I’d write, though it would be a rather vague inquiry, and nothing urgent, but I looked him up on the SPL website.

Now, I’ve been describing this curious sequence of events, quite off the cuff, in the course of the two launches that we’ve organised, to date, for The Tiny Talent. Having come to write about them, however, and actually consult my diary, I find my memory has been at fault, at least in strictly historical terms. What I could have sworn to, is that the very next morning I went into the NLS, and upstairs to Special Collections and there, diagonally across the large table at which I’d put down my stuff, was this chap who looked very like the photograph I’d seen on the SPL website. At which I was amazed, speechless—even for those silent precincts. Could it be… He looked extremely busy, sifting briskly though a folder of letters, and making notes, rather like, I thought, a man who’s only got a few hours before he must leave again for Ghent…

It is very quiet in Special Collections. You feel you will be remembered if you make an untoward noise. And I for one am very glad of the silence.

Yet it wasn’t the very next day (which was a Sunday, duh, spent in Portobello and Duddingston), nor even the day after (NLS General Reading Room), but the Tuesday morning that I came, I saw and waited my moment. I was waiting till this familiar-seeming individual should get to the end of the folder he was efficiently dissecting and return it to the librarian. For this would allow me to stretch out my neck and squint properly at the library card that was lying on his desk, at what from his perspective might be called its postage-stamp corner: the one nearest me.

‘Dr Richie McCaffery,’ it read.

How to make an approach. Easy enough in the General Reading Room, where tolerances are set higher (or at, say, a symposium, or in the Sheep Heid pub in Duddingston). Conveniently, however, Dr McCaffery went to consult the catalogues. These are located behind a partition, relatively out of the way with respect to the room as a whole (and out of earshot, as I thought). I sped after him and whispered my questions, he his answers. We talked more, the field of reference expanding in moments. Expression, I’m sure, entered our voiced interaction, lent what was becoming a conversation wings—

We were shortly back in our places, having more quietly arranged to meet downstairs the next morning.

One of the things that impressed me about our conversation that Wednesday, and on the Thursday that followed, was Richie’s close knowledge of his subject, a knowledge accompanied by a passionate interest, not least in the writers whose work had been lost, or as good as lost to contemporary awareness. (That he is also a book collector is not unrelated to these qualities: he assumed that I was too, but I am not, or not much.) I also realised in due course—though perhaps he mentioned it at the time—that he’d written a lengthy essay on the topic for the next edition of The Dark Horse: ‘Mither Tongue: Scottish Women Poets of the 20th Century’.

Somehow we got onto the subject of Joan Ure—

‘Glaswegian poet and playwright Joan Ure (1918-1978), real name Elizabeth Clark, was the most outstanding voice of her time, still at risk of near-total neglect’ op. cit.

—and it was in the course of this discussion that I started to think about reviving Brae Editions, for the purpose of publishing some of her poetry. No one else seemed to be doing so; it is staggeringly good work, and still very much alive; Richie already knew it well; it fitted my own research interests well enough to devote the time required.

Almost last, but certainly not least, from where we were sitting I could see the exhibition room entranceway all wonderfully well set up for the Muriel Spark Centenary. I’d heard of the WS Graham Centenary too, and lots about Margaret Tait, but where was Joan Ure being celebrated next year?

Lastly, Richie had the title all prepared. This was just the start of the process, of course, although once begun it seemed again that circumstances were conspiring to help see the project through.

We would try and do our bit. For this rider of mopeds, this complex feminist, this non-poet, this ‘Tiny Talent’, Joan Ure.